Lives Behind the Legends: Clark Gable – From Country Boy to Hollywood Star
Clark Gable was known as ‘The King of Hollywood’. He was charming, masculine, talented, and popular. Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him. Luckily for the latter, Clark thoroughly enjoyed their company. Surprisingly, he started out as a completely different person than Hollywood came to know. Clark Gable was an awkward, gangly, shy young man with a high-pitched voice and self-described ‘elephant-ears’. It took quite a transformation to turn this unassuming country boy into the King of Hollywood.
Clark Gable was born to a sickly mother who passed away when he was only ten months old. His father William was a tall, handsome man who was a struggling oil prospector. William was also a known womanizer who liked to drink. As an oil prospector, he spent his weekdays at the oilfield, so it made sense to leave little Clark in the care of his wife’s family after her death. As the only baby of the family, Clark was spoiled and pampered. He was used to being the center of attention and getting his way, but he was still a sweet little boy. After a few years, Clark’s father came to reclaim him. William had re-married and was building his own house. Clark’s family was so crazy about him that they refused to give the sweet-tempered boy back. Eventually, William had to promise that Clark would return to them every summer and the family gave Clark back to his father.
This was when the shy little boy met the woman who would become the most important person in his life: his stepmother Jennie Dunlap. Clark later stated that meeting her was the best day of his life. Jennie was hoping to have children of her own, but never did, so she lavished Clark with motherly affection. She saw and appreciated Clark’s creative and sensitive side. Jennie taught him how to sing and play the piano. He started taking music lessons and played the French horn in a band. Jennie’s affection for Clark was the complete opposite of the way his father treated him. William, who would only refer to Clark as ‘(The) Kid’, was aloof and stern. William never accepted Clark for who he was and felt that his son was too effeminate. It was made clear to Clark that he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and do heavy manual labor to make a living in the future, so he’d better toughen up. To appease his father, Clark played pretty much every sport available once he entered high school. But he never stopped his creative endeavors, thanks to Jennie’s unrelenting support.
Despite his athleticism and tall stature, Clark was quiet and shy. The charmer we would come to know wasn’t there yet. So when they moved to another town and he entered a new school, Clark had trouble fitting in. He dropped out at age sixteen and found a job carrying water bottles in a mine. His father tried to persuade him that this was the time to work alongside him on the oilfields, but Jennie encouraged him to find his own path. For this, Clark would be forever grateful. He left for a job in a rubber factory in Akron, Ohio. The move would change his life.
In Akron, young Clark was introduced to the theatre and cinema. So far, he had only lived in small towns where they didn’t have these forms of entertainment yet. The first play he ever saw was Birds of Paradise. Clark was mesmerized and would later say that it was the most exciting night in his life thus far. Still creative at heart, he decided then and there that he wanted to be an actor. He started hanging out after the shows, running errands for the crew, and was even allowed to fill in a few times when an actor was sick. Unfortunately, he had zero training or experience and was awkward and clumsy on stage.
At the end of 1919, Clark traveled back to Jennie because she was terminally ill. Once there, his father made fun of his theatrical aspirations and the atmosphere between them was frosty. Still, Clark was thankful that he was able to be by Jennie’s bedside when she passed away in January 1920. Since the theatre company had moved on from Ohio and he needed money, Clark took his father’s advice for once and joined him on the oilfields. The living there was rough, having to share a six-bed tent with twelve other men. Clark had to chop wood and clean all day. It was a very tough, back-to-basics lifestyle, that Clark had trouble getting accustomed to. The lack of hygiene in the camp left him with a lifelong germ phobia. If Clark or his father had hoped that working together would strengthen their bond, they were sorely mistaken. They got into a big fight, which reportedly became physical. Clark left the camp and the two wouldn’t speak face-to-face again for a decade.
Clark drifted from town to town, before eventually joining a small stock company in Portland. He was still insecure, especially about his height and clumsiness. He worked hard to learn and even took dancing lessons to move more naturally on stage. He kept his eyes open for opportunities and one came his way that would change the course of his career around 1922.
Actress-turned-teacher Josephine Dillon was starting acting lessons in Portland. Josephine, who was 17 years older than Clark, liked the ambitious young man and took him under her wing. She saw his raw star potential and devoted all of her time to Clark and his career. It wasn’t long before Josephine suggested a move to Hollywood. Money was tight and the only way for them to move in together in those days was to get married. The pair became official on December 14, 1924, though both maintained that the marriage was never consummated. Josephine gave Clark a much-needed make-over: she paid for a new wardrobe and to have his rotten front teeth fixed.
More importantly: she honed his acting skills, taught him body control and posture, and gave him exercises to lower his naturally high-pitched voice. One of these exercises was to scream and yell to damage his vocal cords, leaving him with his famous drawl. From the money that was left, they went to the movies so Clark could study the actors. Their relationship appeared to be completely professional since the more and more confident Clark was openly dating other women.
Though Hollywood wasn’t interested in Clark just yet, he started to receive some theatre roles. Josephine sat in the front row at every performance and would go backstage to give him her notes afterward. This annoyed the cast and crew and embarrassed Clark. He felt that she was possessive and asked her not to come to any more shows. This was the beginning of the end for them. Josephine now barely saw him anymore. He was frequently seen out and about with wealthy socialite Ria Langham, who was also 17 years older than Clark. Clark soon asked Josephine for a divorce. The divorce was finalized in April 1930 and Clark and Ria married that August. Josephine would never see Clark again and later complained to the press that she was the one who had created him. This was certainly partly true. Clark took every bit of help he could get on his road to stardom and slowly created ‘The King of Hollywood’ we came to know. As for Josephine: though Clark never responded to her pleas for money over the years, he did buy the house they had lived in for her. Which was probably his way of “paying her back” for all that she had done for him.
His second marriage got off to a great start. Ria Langham was an elegant and worldly woman, which Clark greatly admired. Like Josephine, she was somewhat of a mentor to him. She taught him etiquette, how to fit in with the upper class, and dressed him in the finest clothes – a far cry from the oilfields or scraping up money to go to the movies with Josephine. Unlike his marriage to Josephine, he did have a romantic relationship with Ria. She was very supportive of his career and Clark was a decent stepfather to her two children.
His performances on stage were finally getting noticed and he was able to get a top-notch agent. After a few small film roles, his agent was able to get Clark a contract at leading Hollywood studio MGM. Still, the studio wasn’t sure about their new asset. Despite Josephine and Ria’s best efforts, Clark was a bit too rough around the edges. They sent him to a gym to work out with weights, plucked his shaggy eyebrows, and gave him a new haircut. Cameramen were told to never film him head-on because of his ears. Clark wasn’t deterred and set out to prove himself.
In 1931, his first year at MGM, Clark made twelve films. Most of them were bit parts, but he had finally shown that he was a great asset to the studio. Now the most important part of his public persona began – his PR package. When a studio has faith in their new actors and actresses, they introduce them to the media. To do this, they create a biography that fits the image they have in mind for their new star. Clark was assigned to top publicist Howard Strickland. Howard decided to create a stereotypical ‘he-man’ image for him. Clark’s hobbies in real life were work and women, but this would not look good in his official biography. He was presented as an outdoorsy type, who enjoyed hunting, fishing, and shooting. Ironically, this was a better description of Clark’s father than of him. Clark had to take pictures in the outdoors and pose beside cars to emphasize his manliness. These, along with his new biography, were handed to the media. The press and the public responded well, so he was given bigger roles by the studio.
The studio soon found that women loved to see Clark on-screen. His collaborations with Joan Crawford were a big hit and his roles changed from ‘bad guy’ to ‘heartthrob’. Nobody was more surprised than Clark, who went into boss Louis B. Mayer’s office and complained that he was ‘too elephant-eared and unattractive’ for these roles. Fortunately for him, he was wrong and the move to desirable leading man made him a star. It was around this time that he completed his make-over. His front teeth may have been fixed, but the rest were so rotten, that his gums became severely infected. Clark had to get dentures, which gave him a Hollywood smile and raised his cheekbones. This is also the time when he reportedly got his ears fixed, though he would claim that they simply seemed smaller because he had gotten bulkier. The star transformation was completed when he divorced Ria, became a power couple with Carole Lombard, and got the part of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. So when Ed Sullivan asked his audience in 1938: ‘Who is the King of Hollywood?’, Clark won the vote by a landslide. It would be his nickname for the rest of his life.
Clark had come a long way from being a shy, awkward country boy. That day in Ohio, when he was so mesmerized by the first play he ever saw, lit a fire in him. From that moment on, he would take every opportunity to grow, learn and move forward for the sake of his career. Through this process, he changed as a person as well: Clark became more confident, charming, and comfortable in his own skin. Although the image that the studio created for him wasn’t truthful at the time, Clark even embraced that. Devote of hobbies before, he started spending more time in the outdoors – fishing and shooting with Hollywood buddies and Carole. He was proud of his “tough guy” image and embodied it more and more. The country boy in him never completely went away though. Instead of living in the middle of the action in Hollywood, Clark and Carole bought a quiet farm. He would live there until the day he died.
Ultimately, Clark wanted more than a carbon copy of his father’s life. After he found his passion, Clark gave his all to become the person he wanted to be: the King of Hollywood.
The sources for this article are Clark Gable: Tormented Star by David Bret, Clark Gable by Warren G. Harris, Clark Gable by Chrystopher J. Spicer, and articles Verdugo Views: Clark Gable’s first wife helped launch his career – LATimes.com, and Josephine Dillon Is Dead; Gable’s First Wife Was 87 – The New York Times, andDearMrGable.com (The Wife Clark Gable Forgot, Josephine Dillon).
— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub
Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.